When sitting down to play any TTRPG, it’s common for players to be very cautious with their character’s actions to make sure they live to fight another day. There’s many good reasons for doing this: many players gain an attachment to their characters over weeks and months of play and don’t want to have them die. Character death stops you from participating in the rest of the current adventure, and requires you to go back and spend another hour or so making a new character. It also makes sense for most characters to be as cautious as possible: after all, what sane person wants to put their life on the line for no good reason? 

In some stories, like heist adventures, caution can be part of the fun. But in many TTRPG settings, DnD included, excessive caution works against the heroic fun of the game. It makes sense for all characters to be as careful as possible, but facing danger head-on is a key experience in classic swords-and-sorcery stories: the type of stories DnD is designed to tell. Here’s some specific examples of excessive caution in games of DnD i’ve played in or run:
“For every hallway in the dungeon, we’ll roll a rock down it to try and trigger traps, then spend 30 miuntes tapping each tile ahead of us with a 6 foot pole.”

“Let’s spend another day going back to town to hire a few guards, so we can outnumber the bandits in this camp.”

“Let’s sleep another 8 hours to get a few hitpoints back before we walk into that boss room.”

All of these decisions deflate the tension of the adventure: the suspense built up by walking through dungeon halls, searching for the bandit camp, or approaching the final boss room is lost when the heroes (and their players) take a long break from action to play it safe. 

All three of these examples of deflated tension come from the same problem with the story: the heroes are not pressed for time. It makes total sense for heroes to be as cautious as possible, but caution doesn’t make for exciting action stories. When characters are pressed for time, they have to make faster, riskier moves which create problems that make the story interesting; if the heroes only have 8 hours to get an antidote from the dungeon before their village dies of plague, then there’s no time to spend hours testing every inch of hallway for traps.

Every heroic story needs to have an imminent threat, not just an unchanging objective that could be completed at any time. Many standard quests like “retrieve this item from this dungeon” come with no ticking timer, so heroes (and players) have no reason to make fast, risky, and action-packed decisions. If you’re a GM writing up your next TTRPG adventure, take a second to ask “could this mission be done at any time? What’s the rush?” if you don’t have an answer to that, try moving some elements around to add a sense of urgency to achieving the objective.

Now that your adventures have time limits that force heroes to make quick, risky decisions, there’s one more step your entire TTRPG group can do together to make this riskier play style more fun. As I mentioned earlier, players are often very cautious with their characters because they don’t want to lose them. Now that players are forced to make riskier decisions with their characters, it’s essential for everyone in your group, GM and players together, to discuss how high-death your group’s adventures are going to be. Could any hallway contain a secret trap that instantly kills people, or will characters only die by making a series of poor decisions and failed actions? Getting on the same page about what amount of lethality the players and GM enjoy is a key final step to making your TTRPG adventures action-packed.

Published by Pine Golem

I’m a game designer who’s spent years brewing house rules for tabletop RPGs, and coding mini-games for friends. Small projects got bigger, and now Im publishing RPG rulebooks and releasing alphas for my best games. Everything I’m putting out is free, because the only way to design better games is to get better feedback, so reach out with your ideas, projects, and critiques at pinegolem.com, i’m all ears.

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